See More on Facebook

Opinion, Politics

Stifling the press in Pakistan

Huma Yusuf looks at the deteriorating press situation in Pakistan.


Written by

Updated: January 29, 2019

A “WALKING shadow”. A “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more”. A “tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing”. Shakespeare was describing life. He could as easily have been writing about the state of Pakistan’s media.

On television screens, pundits screech and pontificate. Online, tweets and retweets document righteous fury and differing opinions. On radio, DJs chatter late into the night. In print, columnists fill column inches with feisty words, punctuation serving in place of pounding fists. But this is all noise without substance.

State attempts to control Pakistan’s independent media are near complete. The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, approved by the cabinet last week, is the formal trapping confirming what has long been implicitly known: there is no appetite for press freedom in Pakistan today. The PMRA will bring all media — print, broadcast, digital — under the control of one regulator that will dictate rules, licensing and punitive measures.

The consolidation of media regulation is particularly damaging to print media, historically perceived as the industry’s ‘release valve’, able to publish content that could not be broadcast owing to its limited readership. Beyond the centralisation of control, the PMRA also reeks of authoritarianism because it disregards the concerns of stakeholders such as media associations.

The PMRA seems especially excessive because this campaign has been so effective. A report published last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted the widespread practice of self-censorship, with journalists conceding that they did not comment on no-go issues for fear of being sacked, harassed, killed (notably, journalists’ identified fear of retaliation by militant groups as another driver of self-censorship alongside pressure from state institutions). Against this backdrop, the PMRA will sanction overt censorship, beyond that which is already being done.

The PMRA’s approval should be the fillip that unites the media industry to coordinate its response to this attack on press freedom. The divisiveness within the industry has been a key reason for the state’s success in encroaching on freedoms so far. A first step could be for the independent media to reconsider self-censorship as the prime strategy for dodging strong-arming by the state, which will increase under the PMRA.

Self-censorship is a win-win for the state. It enables the semblance of a free and vibrant press — the sound and fury that the government can tout at international fora as proof of Pakistan’s democratic credentials — all the while signifying nothing, failing to report the truth, failing to hold state institutions accountable, failing to inform the citizenry.

By resorting to self-censorship, the independent media has hidden the extent to which it is cowered from its audiences, and left itself open to charges of venality and avarice. Pakistan’s middle classes have become accustomed to criticising what they read and watch, without demanding to learn what information is being denied to them.

Journalists must remember that the press comprises the country’s public record. It is what will become history, and what will inform future national narratives. Self-censorship, by definition, leaves things unsaid, without revealing that what is documented is merely a coerced sampling of available information. By self-censoring, the media becomes complicit in the authoritarian project of coining a unified, imposed narrative about the country, its politics, its predicaments and potential.

There is a reason why our senior journalists and editors, when confronted with press censorship under Zia, chose to black out columns to indicate when the military regime objected to certain content. This let the public know the conditions under which the press was operating. And while it didn’t help people learn what they were not being told, it empowered them to understand that they did not have the complete story. Such awareness helped fuel the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, and kept the appetite for civilian rule alive through dark times.

History will view the formation of the PMRA as a low for the PTI government, confirmation of its undemocratic agenda and subservience to Pakistan’s real power brokers. But it will equally judge the media’s response to such draconian measures. Rather than be reduced to a “tale told by an idiot”, the independent media should seriously consider how it will write the story of resistance.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Dawn
About the Author: Dawn is Pakistan's oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Opinion, Politics

Border clash with India leaves 7 dead in Pakistan

Kashmir is becoming an untenable boiling point. At least six civilians and a Pakistani soldier were killed as Indian troops resorted to “indiscriminate and ruthless” shelling from across the Line of Control (LoC) in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), officials said on Sunday. Officials said that nine other civilians were injured, adding that this was the highest death toll in 2019 in a single day of Indian shelling from across the dividing line. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) notified through a tweet that one soldier had been martyred in the exchange of fire while two others were injured. ISPR added that in response to unprovoked ceasefire violations by India in Jura, Shahkot and Nauseri sectors, nine Indian soldiers were killed while several ot


By Dawn
October 21, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Survey finds two-thirds oppose military spending

Military expenditure has become a hot button issue in Thailand. Nearly two-thirds of citizens want the government to spend more on health and social security, according to a recent Super Poll survey. Assistant Professor Noppadon Kannika, director of the Super Poll Research Centre, said 1,069 people were quizzed about the budget for fiscal 2020 currently before the House. He said 65.9 per cent felt a greater share of the budget should be allocated to health, while 64.9 per cent believe more should go to education, 59.8 per cent to job provision and another 59.8 per cent to security in the quality of life. Less support was expressed for spending on national security (54.8 per cent), transportation and road repairs (50.8 per cent) and small-medium business promotion (48.2 per cent). Asked about their political leanings, 67.2 per cent of respondents said they were “in


By The Nation (Thailand)
October 21, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong march spirals into chaos, again

Violence begets violence as more protests hits Hong Kong on the weekend. An illegal protest rally through Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui spiraled into chaos on Sunday, as protesters began to engage in acts of vandalism and arson even as the police warned of a response. Signs of trouble began to emerge towards the end of the march near the West Kowloon terminus in a now familiar pattern. Protesters were seen spraying over the MTR logo with black paint, building barricades and digging up bricks from the ground. At Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, demonstrators tossed multiple rounds of Molotov cocktails at the station and police responded with multiple volleys of tear gas from the upper floors of the building while warning protesters over a loudspeaker to stop. Two hoses were constantly spraying water to douse the flames. A similar scene played out at the Mong Kok police station, prompting officers insid


By Asia News Network
October 21, 2019

Opinion, Politics

President Joko Widodo sworn in for second term

Joko exhorts Indonesians to develop ‘new ways and values’. A few hours before he was sworn in for a second and final term in office on Sunday (Oct 20), Indonesian President Joko Widodo uploaded a new profile picture on Facebook with the caption “Let’s work together towards progress for Indonesia”. The post has since garnered more than 224,000 likes and over 19,000 comments from well-wishers congratulating him on his re-election and cheering him on to steer the country to success. At around 4pm Jakarta time (5pm Singapore time), millions of Indonesians tuned in to a live television broadcast as Mr Joko, more popularly known as Jokowi, recited his oath of office before lawmakers and regional senators that make up the People’s Consultative Assembly, or MPR, at the Parliament building. The new Vice-President, cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who replaced outgoing Mr Jusuf Kalla, also took h


By The Straits Times
October 21, 2019

Opinion, Politics

‘History will take note of those who ridiculed removal of Article 370’: PM Modi in Maharashtra

PM Modi also expressed confidence that the BJP will break all victory records in the October 21 Maharashtra Assembly elections. Prime Minister on Thursday once again lashed out at the opposition saying that history will take note of those who mocked the abrogation of Article 370, that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. “Whenever Article 370 will be discussed in history, — the decision that was taken in the interest of the country — the people who opposed and ridiculed will be remembered,” PM Modi said while addressing a poll rally in Maharashtra’s Parli. He said the next week’s state Assembly elections were a battle between BJP’s “karyashakti” (power of development) and opposition’s “swarth shakti” (selfishness). Further targeting the Congress and NCP leaders, he wondered if “frustrated and dejected” people could do anything good for people. “A Congress


By The Statesman
October 18, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam unveils measures to ease housing crunch

Lam was forced to deliver speech via video after protests. Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures aimed at easing a housing shortage on Wednesday (Oct 16) as she battles to restore confidence in her administration and address widespread discontent after four months of mostly violent anti-government protests. Mrs Lam was forced to deliver her speech via video after her annual policy address in the Legislative Council was aborted when some lawmakers repeatedly jeered and shouted at her as she began speaking. After aborting her speech in the chamber tw


By The Straits Times
October 17, 2019